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How does futures work?

The further we look into the future, the greater uncertainty there is. Futures studies aim to build understanding about the forces shaping the future, what surprises could be on the horizon and what actions could be taken today to deal with them. Futures methods are used across the public, private and social sectors.

Typically starting with horizon (or environment) scanning, both qualitative and quantitative research methods are used to spot signals of change, track trends and make projections. Once this data and information has been gathered, these insights can be organised in informative and creative ways to help people imagine different futures.

The fundamental task of futures studies is to explore and propose possible, probable and preferable futures. This idea is core to much of the theory, practice and outputs in the field over the past 50 years.

These futures can be brought to life through the development of future scenarios, by telling stories through science fiction and personas, and even creating objects from the future using speculative design methods.

Futures methods in practice

Efforts to ‘divine’ what the future holds have been an important part of human cultures since the time of mystics, oracles and shamans. In some cases, the roots of futures approaches can be traced back hundreds of years; for example, Thomas More introduced the principles behind the Utopian method as early as the 1500s, spawning a whole genre in literature, film and the arts. However, it was in the post-war period that ‘futures’ became an increasingly credible and robust field of study.

During this period, futures methods were most closely associated with military and corporate strategy. The US think-tank RAND was founded after the Second World War and focused initially on the future of military strategy. Another well-known incubator of futures thinking was Shell, which has famously been using scenarios in its corporate planning for over 50 years.

Over time, futures methods were proactively adopted by the policymaking community. Singapore’s government has a longstanding centre of expertise in forecasting for the public sector in the form of the Centre for Strategic Futures. In recent years the UK’s Government Office for Science has applied futures methods to look at trends in ageing and the prospects for our cities. In the US, the National Intelligence Council publishes an assessment every four years of how key trends will shape the world over the next 20 years to help decision-makers plan for the long term.

Given the range of different futures methods in existence, and the range of sectors in which they are used, it is important to ensure that the right tool is being used to solve a given challenge. To this end, the Government Office for Science’s Futures Toolkit organises tools according to four practical purposes futures methods can serve:

  1. Gathering intelligence about the future (for example, 7 Questions and the Delphi method).
  2. Exploring the dynamics of change (for example, Driver Mapping and the Axes of Uncertainty).
  3. Describing what the future might be like (for example, Visioning and SWOT Analysis).
  4. Developing/testing policy and strategy (for example, Backcasting and Roadmapping).

Nesta's work on futures

Nesta’s use of futures methods started to gain momentum from 2012 onwards, focusing on emerging technologies and new frontiers in science.

In 2013 we published Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow: a modest defence of futurology, making the case for futures as a valuable means of interrogating change and innovation.

Nesta has commonly used futures methods as a route into exploring topics or technologies which have later gone on to become increasingly important to our work. This is particularly the case with our work on Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, the healthcare system and the impact of automation on the workforce.

Equally, we use data-mapping as a tool for identifying early signals of change and the growth in new technologies and networks. This is playing an important role in our Next Generation Internet project which focuses on creating a more inclusive web by 2025.

Crucially, our application of futures methods is not limited to technology. We are committed to understanding what methods can be used to open conversations about the future with wider groups of people. We believe professional futurists, technologists, scientists and policymakers also need to communicate across professional silos and engage the wider public in a more inclusive debate about the future.

Case studies

Arts and Culture Horizon Scan

As Arts Council England prepared to develop a new ten-year strategy, they commissioned Nesta to conduct a rapid horizon scan of the operating climate for arts and cultural organisations. In the 2018 paper Experimental Culture we reviewed data on workforce, future audiences, new technologies and business models and interviewed thought leaders in the field to explore the challenges and opportunities of the next decade for the sector.

Futures workshop

Over the past six years, Nesta has worked with partners such as the V&A and Arup on a range of futures workshops, which integrate experimental methods such as speculative design, storytelling and performance. Examples include a workshop to generate profiles of future Londoners, narratives about the rise of nanosatellites and sessions exploring possible futures for people-powered medical devices.

Employment in 2030

In 2017, Nesta published a major study on the future of skills and jobs. The Future of Skills: employment in 2030 was underpinned by an innovative methodology, which combined historical jobs and trends analysis, qualitative foresight workshops and quantitative machine learning techniques, in a novel way to predict which skills and jobs will be in higher demand in the future. The study’s findings challenged the alarmism that holds back technology adoption, innovation and growth.

FutureFest

Since 2013, Nesta’s FutureFest has taken over 11,000 people on a multi-sensory journey to touch, feel, debate, taste and experience the future. The interdisciplinary line-up of speakers has included Edward Snowden, Vivienne Westwood, Brian Eno and Lord Martin Rees. We have also collaborated with businesses, research bodies, artists, communities, design studios and universities to provide a platform for installations and immersive experiences like ‘Neurosis’ (a neurological thrill ride) and the Fertility Shop of the Future.

Further resources